The Red Queen’s Gambit: Helping the Lab Avoid Burnout

In Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass, Alice is being given a tour of Looking-Glass Land by the Red Queen when this happens:

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying “Faster! Faster!” but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.

However, after running until Alice feels absolutely exhausted she looks around in surprise to find that they are exactly in the same place where they had begun.

Carroll, Lewis (1991) [1871]. “2: The Garden of Live Flowers”. Through the Looking-Glass (The Millennium Fulcrum Edition 1.7 ed.). Project Gutenberg.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Laboratory medicine is one of many areas of healthcare where more is constantly expected to be done with less, where the inhabitants of our looking-glass land have to run as fast as we can just to maintain the status quo. Also like many areas of medicine, our already strained workforce suddenly became victims of an unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic stressing and stretching our capabilities. The gamble then, is expecting members of our incredible laboratory medicine community to run so fast that they ultimately burn themselves out.

From the December 2020 New York Times article on laboratory workers in the time of COVID-19 titled, “‘Nobody Sees Us’: Testing-Lab Workers Strain Under Demand“:

Morale in the labs has flagged as the country continues to shatter records for caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths. The nation’s testing experts know these statistics better than anyone: They count the numbers themselves, sample by sample. But they are also easy targets of criticism and complaint.

“There is always this undercurrent of, it’s never good enough,” said Dr. Abbott, of Deaconess Hospital in Indiana. “It’s devastating. We’re working as hard as we can.”

In April 2020, just a few weeks after COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic, the April issue American Journal of Clinical Pathology opened with two timely editorials, one from Dr. Jeanette Guarner discussing the three emergent coronavirus diseases of the past two decades (SARS, MERS and COVID-19) and the next by Dr. Steven H Kroft titled “Well-Being, Burnout, and the Clinical Laboratory.”

In this issue were three different articles, the results of extensive surveys conducted by the ASCP to determine the job satisfaction, well-being and burnout prevalent among 1) pathologists, 2) pathology residents and fellows, and 3) laboratory professionals. Knowing now what clinical laboratories, leaders and trainees were about to go through thanks to COVID-19, made these publications about the stress and satisfaction felt by those in lab medicine was timely (if not grimly ironic).

What is shown in those excellent publications, and what we can only assume has become more true, is “burnout,” (the “combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and loss of sense of personal accomplishment”) prevalent in laboratory medicine, with the majority of pathologists, residents and fellows, and professionals reporting having experienced it if not experiencing it as an ongoing problem.

There is no single solution to burnout in the laboratory. As Dr. Kroft outlines in his editorial, these surveys can be seen as initial steps to understanding the problem and plotting potential courses forward (“a roadmap for what workplace landmines to try to avoid.”). But several meaningful pieces of data emerged from these surveys as well: Overwhelmingly, pathologists and lab professionals enjoy their work (91% and 86%) and feel valued by their colleagues (79% and 71%). Also telling is the fact that while well over 90% of laboratory professionals reported “a little bit of stress” to “a lot of stress,” 2/3rds of them reported feeling either “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs. Clearly, no one knows the value of laboratory medicine better than those of us doing it. But recognition and support coming from within the laboratory space should be seen as a good first step to acknowledging these contributions.

Recognition is needed from outside lab leadership as well, and especially should be accompanied by both stress-reducing measures (filling labor gaps, adequate compensation and benefits etc.) and opportunities to feel ownership and personal investment in the contributions we make to healthcare. Healthcare leaders, professional organizations, and all of those who were vocal supporters of labs’ contributions during the worst of the pandemic, should continue to advocate on behalf of laboratory staff’s well-being.

Even as vaccines and other mitigation efforts are providing more widespread pandemic relief in the United States, it’s clear that we are now through a COVID-19 looking glass. The lab was already running as fast as it could, but to get us to where we are now, many of us started running twice as fast. Hopefully we will both continue to run and also be supported in that ongoing race to stay where we are.

-Dr. Richard Davis, PhD, D(ABMM), MLS(ASCP)CM is a clinical microbiologist and regional director of microbiology for Providence Health Care in Eastern Washington. A certified medical laboratory scientist, he received his PhD studying the tropical parasite Leishmania. He transitioned back to laboratory medicine (though he still loves parasites!), and completed a clinical microbiology fellowship at the University of Utah/ARUP Laboratories in Utah before accepting his current position. He is a 2020 ASCP 40 Under Forty Honoree.

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